By Susan Sered, author of Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responsibility
The following blog is reposted from the author’s ongoing blog about updates from the women of Can’t Catch a Break. These blog posts offer readers and instructors a teaching tool to use with the book. You can read more about this project here.
Dearest Tina Marie,
It seems fitting, somehow, that you passed away during what’s come to be called Pride Month. I picture you flouncing into the women’s center at St. Francis House, or into my office at Suffolk University, or into the Dunkin Donuts where you’d order coffee with seven creams and ten sugars (what a way to get a milkshake for the price of a cup of joe!). It’s March or April or May — still a good two months until the annual Gay Pride parade, but you are already well into making plans. Overflowing with excitement you debate which dress you will wear, how you will arrange your hair, paint your nails. You relish the one day in the year in which no one insists that you sign your “government name” (that’s what you call the conventionally male name on your birth certificate) or forces you into the men’s section of a shelter, a rehab, or a jail. You can’t wait for the opportunity to show the world that you love your woman-self in all your glory.
But that was in the past, in the early years of our friendship – 2008, 2012, 2015 – during what I suspect was the best era in your life. You told me that after many years of struggle you finally had come to embrace both the male and female aspects of yourself. You were in a long-term relationship with a man your family loved and accepted. You were young and healthy enough to navigate life on the streets. And you and your “trannie” friends knew how to have a good time – often skirting the edges of danger but rarely crossing the line.
In recent years I only caught brief glimpses of your trademark Tina Marie optimism, humor, and vitality. You more often said that you are too tired to make the effort to adorn your woman-self, that Pride is not as much fun as it once was, that too many beloved friends and family members had died or let you down.
Oh Tina, I didn’t want to hear that. I didn’t want to hear how hard it had become to keep up the rainbow spectacle in a world in which transwomen like you struggle with exploitation and abuse. I wanted the old Tina Marie who bubbled with camp and drag, blowing kisses and showing off her new stiletto heel shoes, flirting and teasing and drawing everyone she met into her circle of joyous intimacy. I didn’t want to see you worn down by poverty and homelessness and mockery and violence. I wanted to believe that your extraordinary ability to make and keep friends would save you.
I’ll be honest, Tina. I knew what was going on – I just didn’t want to face it. I’m a researcher, and I know that transwomen, homeless women, incarcerated women age quickly (it’s called “weathering”) and die young. I knew you’d lost your housing and were dragging your ragged possessions around on the streets. I’d seen you covered with rashes and sores. And I knew that international cartels were raking in piles of gold as they peddled poison disguised as cocaine or heroin, substances that women like you depended on to make it through days and nights of terror and despair.
More than once over the past few years you called me from New York or Florida where you’d gone hoping to rekindle the buoyant fun of the old days in which the men you met at clubs admired your youthful energy and tourists paid to take their pictures with the glamorous Tina Marie in full drag. But now you were broke, eating out of garbage cans, desperate to get home to Boston, risking your life to turn a trick or two to get money to buy a bus ticket, and please could I help you get home. I am happy that I helped you on several occasions and hope that you know that I would always have helped if you had called me.
Even with so much to juggle just to survive each day and night, Tina, you always remembered to ask after my daughter. You know I also have three sons, but it was my youngest – my little girl – whose journey from adolescence to independence you loved hearing about. Did you imagine a life in which you had the opportunities available to her? In any case, when I called her yesterday during the Pride parade in her New York City borough of Brooklyn, she told me that Pride has become a commodified extravaganza, an excuse for straight people to dress up in flashy clothes. I might have seen this as a step towards the normalization of gender-bending if it weren’t the case that violence against transwomen is increasing as the white Christian Right pours resources into waging a war against so-called “dangerous” drag queens who threaten their children’s safety. Tina, you grew up in an Irish Catholic neighborhood during an era in which clergymen abused children and young people like yourself were beaten up for being “faggots” (a word that was spray-painted on your family’s house.) Has our country somehow confused the perpetrator with the survivor?
My dearest Tina, I had the honor and privilege of sitting with you in the ICU as the compassionate hospital staff kept you on life support until your brother and close friend could come and say goodbye. During those dark, cozy, confusing hours when I didn’t know if I was talking to you or to your empty body, I reminded you about a conversation we’d had many years ago. I had asked you about your experiences with twelve step programs. You quickly dismissed AA and NA but added that “my mother is my higher power.” Your mother was indeed your sun and your moon and your guiding star. You told me that you would never consider “bottom” surgery because this is the body your mother gave birth to, and you wouldn’t want to mutilate it. You told me that your mother would say that with you she got a “two-fer” (two for the price of one) – both a daughter and a son. And I saw your light begin to fade when your mother died.
Oh Tina, I hope with all my heart that when you crossed the rainbow bridge last night you slid into your mother’s waiting arms. Please, Tina, help me believe that you and she are dancing across the heavens and that you will never again face pain or prejudice.
I love you, my dearest Tina Marie.